Saxena double ton drives patient Rajasthan
Rajasthan 404 for 2 (Saxena 207*, Kanitkar 67) v Tamil Nadu
Vineet Saxena remained unconquered for the second successive day as he notched his career-best score and became the 21st batsman to score a double-century in a Ranji Trophy final, breaking the drought after fourteen years. The last man to accomplish such a feat was Rahul Dravid, playing for Karnataka in 1997-98 season against Uttar Pradesh. Saxena's marathon 12-hour effort helped Rajasthan to take a commanding position from where they can now dictate the outcome in the remaining three days.
Considering that the run rate hovered around the two-per-over mark, critics are likely to question Rajasthan's conservative approach on what has been an unthreatening pitch, which has remained a flat baking bed in the Chennai heat.
Saxena silenced the opposition with his patience. His presence became more significant as the day progressed after Rajasthan had endured a tough morning session, when only 51 runs came in 36 overs for the loss of one wicket. Saxena lost his overnight partner Aakash Chopra, who paid the price for his defensiveness in the morning. Chopra began the day 14 short of his century, but struggled to catch a rhythm, managing only eight runs from 34 deliveries before losing his wicket.
Only 15 runs were scored after the first hour, with the first boundary arriving after 63 deliveries. Probably that fact was weighing on Chopra's mind when he reacted, a bit slowly, to a straighter delivery from the left-arm spinner Aushik Srinivas. The ball pitched on off and middle stump and rushed to catch Chopra plumb in front of the wicket. Finally after 105 overs, Tamil Nadu had their first wicket.
The stagnating run rate, along with the suffocating fields, only increased the pressure on the batsmen. Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the new man, was beaten off successive deliveries by Srinivas half an hour before lunch: the first ball turned into his pads and hit him in line with the stump but the big stride forward saved the Rajasthan captain. Srinivas turned the next ball away with his arm and missed the outside edge marginally.
Both Saxena and Kanitkar returned more positive post lunch. Kanitkar cut Yo Mahesh in front of square and then swept Srinivas when he persisted by attacking his leg stump. Saxena, who had been completely subdued for the entire morning session, pushed a firm drive, against the offspinner Sunny Gupta, through the thick off-side field to get to 150 and pass his previous first-class best of 143.
Saxena brought up the first six of the match, over long-on, by giving Gupta the charge. Understandably anxious, Saxena spent a little while before getting to his double-century: trying to push a fuller delivery from Yo Mahesh to third man, the bottom edge travelled past the gully for a four. It was an incredible achievement in the art of grafting.
Saxena could only thank the opposition bowlers for making life easy for him. The pitch, no doubt, was of little assistance but L Balaji had encountered many such surfaces in the past. Balaji, the Tamil Nadu captain and the bowling leader, had to use his cutters to make an impact. Sadly for the hosts, Balaji was wayward, as was the pair of Yo Mahesh and Kaushik, who offered more width when the need was to be accurate.
Not that the slow bowlers did any better. In fact, it was a true test of patience for the 18-year-old Srinivas, who bowled the most number of overs in an innings in his three-year career. Unlike on Thursday, when he was darting the ball, today Srinivas offered more flight and also got the ball to jump from the widening cracks and the rough.
But the absence of a plan, as well as an attacking field hurt the spinners. A good example was when Srinivas changed ends to make use of the rough outside Saxena's leg stump at the Pavilion end. However, his first mistake was to pitch marginally outside the leg stump when a better line would have been to stick to middle and leg. Balaji then failed to crowd the batsman with a short leg and a leg slip to support his bowler's lines. It only allowed Saxena to breathe easy.
Earlier, Gupta, who had failed to get any sort of grip on the batsmen, had moved the slip to leg slip against Saxena. But instead of bowling on the middle stump, he pitched on the rough outside the leg stump, making it easier for the batsmen to play the sweep. The Tamil Nadu bowlers were clearly lost between trying to attack and squeezing the run rate.
There was a cry of relief from Gupta when, immediately after the tea break, he floated a loopy off break to Kanitkar, who lazily tried to play it away from the body. The edge was picked nicely by Dinesh Karthik, to log his 250th victim in first-class cricket. There was not much joy for the hosts for the second day running.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo